Weeping for Tammuz

I went to Church on Sunday, an event rare enough to record here, since it does take some effort, where I was reminded that it’s going to be Lent again soon. I’ve seen people making statements on their Facebook pages that they’re going to do (or not do) this or that ‘for Lent’. The Christian church has developed a whole theology of abstinence and reflection around Lent in the same way as Muslims have around Ramadan, which practice – although not precedent –  is absent in the Gospels. Perhaps that’s unfair. Being personally off the scale in respect of observance for its own sake, I have no quarrel with those who find Lent both purgative and refreshing; a necessary introit to Easter.

I’m often amused to read how pre-Christian festivals were systematically incorporated into annual celebrations – thanks again, Constantine, but Lent is even older than most of the others, it seems. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon Lencten, meaning “spring,” the origins of Lent can be traced back to ancient Babylonian mystery religions. The forty days’ abstinence of Lent was directly borrowed from the Babylonian cult of ‘weeping for Tammuz’ and among pagans, this idea seems to have been an indispensable preliminary to the great annual festival in commemoration of his death and resurrection and whose Feast was usually celebrated in June (also called the “month of Tammuz”). Before giving up personal sins and vices during Lent, the pagans held a wild, “anything goes” celebration to make sure that they got their fair share of debauchery – now celebrated as Mardi Gras. The prophet Ezekiel would have looked down his nose at all that, I am certain.

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Mardi Gras, New Orleans

Lent was held forty days before the feast, “celebrated by alternate weeping and rejoicing.” This is why Lent means “spring”; it took place from spring to early summer.

The Roman church replaced Passover with Easter, moving the Feast of Tammuz to early spring, “Christianizing” it and Lent moved with it.

OK, then. Rather a far cry from the way in which the churches keep the season today. Starting with Ash Wednesday it carries on until Good Friday – ‘good’ in the sense of ‘holy’. I’ve always thought that it should be called ‘karfreitag’ or ‘sorrowful Friday’ then ‘Good’ – or Glorious – Sunday.

screen-shotAsh Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and placing them on the heads of participants in the form of a cross to the accompaniment of the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. OK, then. My Catholic friends and I amicably disagree, so I’ll keep my idolatry fighting boots in the closet. I shan’t be excessively penitential this year, in common with other years, the prospect of self-flagellation and the cilice not being altogether tempting; I went to an English private school, for Heaven’s sake. I know a man who gave up whisky for Lent, replacing it with cognac. Now, that’s sacrifice.

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Shtisel

screen-shotYes. I have to add this. The whole series is online and seeing the oh-so-familiar ‘yes’ TV symbol caused a wee frisson, I have to say. I can’t quite understand why this little series has gone so aggressively viral, but, indeed it has. For me, the cinematography was a lot like going home – Jerusalem stone, people hurriedly heading indoors, the images at the back of Mahane Yehuda were piercingly familiar – I half expected myself to leap in and out of shot along with the haredim who held their expensive hats on so firmly against the wind down the alleyways of Mea She’arim.

If you want to learn how Orthodox Jews think, this fly-on-the-wall series is no bad place to start. A man’s most prized possession is his hat, it would seem. Legions of dowdily dressed wives, Boudiccas in woollen caps, keep their menfolk and their children in line. No wonder some of the men have a hunted expression and the women a steely glint in their eyes.

The Christians are peculiar, for one important reason. Like Huckleberry Finn’s maiden aunt, they ‘grumble over the victuals’ before the fodder on offer is presented. Whenever a Jew has a mouthful before him, he gives thanks, whether it be a glass of water or a bowl of cholent (Jewish stew). Seems a better bet to me – at least you know what exactly you are giving thanks for. If it looks like a cremated ferret, you might want to pass.

The haredim are so very ‘other’. They have a mindset uniquely insular, yet the way families interact is so very comforting in its familiarity. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a few moments.

Donald’s Lightbulb

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Do I look like Dirty Harry? Whaddya think?

I don’t know Donald Trump but I’m convinced that I don’t like him, an opinion, mindless as it is, which is shared with a large number of others who also don’t know him. He’s a businessman, a deal-maker, bombastic and arrogant with a public persona which lacks warmth. So, there. Suck it up. Take it or leave it.
I think his executive order barring travel from certain Muslim countries was rash and mean-spirited, at the cost of maximum social abrasion. It is probably giving the Trump administration too much credit to think they planned it that way. And yet I cannot get behind all the hyperbolic comparisons in the form of highly charged and mostly baseless emotive protests against him simply because they are far too numerous and completely disproportionate, the voice of a baying mob. I can’t line up with the idea that he’s a uniquely bad president, possibly the worst ever; that he’s ‘abnormal’ – someone we must never ‘normalise’. Why not? Because there simply isn’t enough hard information and, incidentally, where did we develop the skill or earn the right to suggest such things? I can’t do that for two reasons, first, because decisions made in the past have been as morally reprehensible as those being made today and there was nothing approaching the backlash we’ve seen in recent days. Secondly, the simple reason that treating Trump as abnormal implicitly normalises that which preceded him. It whitewashes history. It forgives, or at least dilutes, the crimes and misdemeanours of his predecessors.
The executive order which caused all the fuss is morally unacceptable since it is tantamount to collective punishment. It is also strategically dubious since many terrorists are home-grown or came from countries other than the seven on which the ban is levied. Finally, its implementation was clumsy and caused quite unnecessary distress and uncertainty, so it was, overall, a bad call. Trump gained power in part by trading on fear of immigrants; many of whom have, of course, hugely benefited the societies where they have made their homes. Of course, this is only true for those who have elected to adopt the cultural norms of their host nation and contribute enthusiastically to them. Those who huddle in Shari’a-led ghettoes will never benefit from all that is on offer and will spend a miserable existence seething and fulminating on the back burner of society.
But, what has gone before? There’s a strong argument to suggest that the war in Syria descended into barbarity in part because President Obama encouraged the rebels, and the Sunni majority population of Syria who supported them, promising them arms and protection, and then abandoned them. When that didn’t work, Obama went on to release billions of dollars in funds to the Iranian regime, whose forces and Shia militia in Syria have done much, if not most, of the killing there these past six years. The new funds helped the Iranians fuel the effort to ethnically cleanse Sunnis from Syria, leading many to seek sanctuary in Europe and beyond. While millions of people in America, Britain and elsewhere have protested Trump’s refugee policies in just one week, they had little to say about Obama’s foreign policies over the last eight years. He deported more immigrants than any other President in history, but he was a nice guy, thus can be forgiven. He stopped Iraqi immigration for six months in 2011 to ‘re-evaluate the vetting process’. Wait a moment – we’ve heard that somewhere before, surely. One and a half million people have signed a protest demanding that Trump’s State visit to the UK should be cancelled. The matter is to be debated in Parliament on 20th February, coincident with a planned mass protest initiated by the fatuous Left, who imagine that the thousands of man-hours spent in mobilisation will make an iota of difference. Where were the protests (apart from outbreaks of migrant violence) as thousands died trying to reach Greece or Italy – partly as the consequence of a war in Libya, in which the Obama administration, along with Britain and France, played a decisive role?  Or, when during Obama’s final week in office, many Cubans with legal visas were reportedly detained at U.S. airports, and then sent back. And why weren’t there huge rallies demanding to allow in the Yazidis, fleeing danger, death and slavery and with nowhere to go?  In 2014, just 250 Yazidi protesters massed outside No 10 handing in a letter calling upon David Cameron to end the ISIS massacre, but where was the moral outrage then? For many activists, ‘wokeness’ – being conscious of societal norms and injustices – is merely a social-sorting mechanism. Wokeness isn’t about injustice, as such. It is about caring about the “right people”  in a way that emphasises our moral superiority over others and cements our place in the sociopolitical hierarchy of our choice. All the little snowflakes outside Berkeley – are you paying attention yet? Just being able to spell the word ‘fascist’ on your placard doesn’t give you the right to use it indiscriminately. There are endless examples. Angry placard-wavers whose agenda is narrow and unilateral don’t deserve to be identified with great causes.  Until they can speak out against the sixteen nations where the presentation of an Israeli passport bans entry, or they identify radical Islam as a real threat to world peace and take to the streets to condemn it, their interests would be better served by staying at home.